In an increasingly crowded field of Democratic candidates to become Philadelphia’s next district attorney – the field grew by one with the Tuesday addition of former prosecutor Jack O’Neill – it can be a challenge to stand out from the pack. There are only so many positions to stake out and reforms to be made.
For Joe Khan, the first distinguishing characteristic of his candidacy is timing. The 41-year-old longtime prosecutor – he served stints in both the Philadelphia DAO and in the US Attorney’s Office – was the first opponent to declare against incumbent Seth Williams. This was back in September, when running against a sitting Democratic elected official, even one suffering from numerous self-inflicted wounds like Williams, seemed a dicey prospect at best.
Khan was well aware of the risk he was taking, but speaks about his decision as if there really was no choice but to run. “When you’re faced with a difficult decision, it’s helpful to look at it a couple different ways,” he explained. “I asked myself how I would feel if I walked away from this opportunity. I knew I would never be able to look my kids in the eye and ask them to do something difficult if I didn’t do this.”
Since then, Khan seemed downright prophetic, as Williams announced last month that he wouldn’t run for re-election and six more challengers joined the race.
“I’m the only candidate who is a lifelong Philadelphian and a product of its public schools,” Khan added during an interview at the offices of Spector Gadon & Rosen, P.C., the Center City law firm where he has been working since leaving the US Attorney’s office to run for DA (he is also a professor of trial advocacy at Penn Law School). “I’m the only one who has spent every day since graduating law school dedicated to serving Philadelphia.”
This isn’t the first time Khan has been involved in the electoral process: As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, he worked on the campaign of former US Rep. Bob Borski, and while at the University of Chicago Law School, he helped out on the state Rep. campaign of one of his professors, Barack Obama. Citing both instructors like the 44th president and teachers at Central High School, as well as his father as inspiration for his career and career move, Khan said that “This sense of mission comes from the values instilled from role models like my parents” – his father was an engineer for the City of Philadelphia, his mother a nurse – “and great teachers.”
The story of his father, Zia, who immigrated to the US from Pakistan, is also a motivating factor in Khan’s outspoken stance against Trump administration initiatives like the immigration crackdown and threats to withhold funding from sanctuary cities.
“My dad came here from Pakistan at a time when there was no such thing as a Muslim ban,” Khan said. “He was welcomed by this city and its people, and he got a world-class education at Penn.”
Khan would vigorously oppose any executive order directing deportation of undocumented immigrants, emphasizing that he would “make sure that the DA’s office is not cooperating with federal immigration authorities efforts to deport immigrants. We will not participate in any way, shape or form. We are going to do the opposite. We are going to be bolder in protecting these people when they are victims of a crime.”
He would also direct the DAO to step up its efforts to deal with a less publicized aspect of immigration: human trafficking. “The current DA’s office has completely failed the victims of human trafficking in this region – to my knowledge, a grand total of zero cases involving foreign-born victims brought here from overseas have been brought by the DA’s office. I’m going to make sure that the DAO is not only addressing that problem but is a leader in a regional task force to stamp out human trafficking.”
Other aspects of the Trump agenda he sees the DAO pushing back against include any weakening of the EPA that results in environmental dangers to the city and its residents, and defunding any federally supported programs in the city, like for the school district.
“If there are funds the DA’s Office is getting, for example, any asset forfeiture – I’ve talked repeatedly about the need to reform the civil asset forfeiture program in Philadelphia – if we are earmarking whatever comes in not for the DA’s office, not a for-profit model of having forfeiture in criminal cases, but if we have the ability to capture criminal proceeds, we can send them to a destination like our schools that need it.”
Other priorities for Khan include bail reform that would end the practice of keeping people who can’t raise bail in jail by using a system similar to the one used by the US Attorney’s Office. “We used a system that answered the questions: Are you too dangerous or too much of a flight risk to be let out? If the answer was no, we would find a way to get you out. The goal of the bail system is to make sure people show up for court. We need to get back to the basics.”
Khan praised two of Williams’ initiatives – the expansion of the Conviction Integrity Unit and a focus on community-based prosecutions, but emphasized that the incumbent’s tenure is one marked by a lack of creativity, discipline and integrity, a combination that has led to a dispirited staff and distrustful citizenry, himself included. He cited the DAO’s 2016 handling of Officer Christopher Hulmes, who committed perjury.
“The response of the district attorney’s office was to basically do nothing,” he marveled. “It was not to immediately notify every defendant and defense attorneys with pending cases involving that officer that he had committed perjury. It was not to open an investigation into all the prior cases in which people had been convicted based on the word of that officer. It was not to open a criminal investigation into that officer. It was not to notify that officer’s supervisors that there was a problem. It was to essentially do nothing. The assistant district attorney who eventually blew the whistle, instead of being given a medal, or being encouraged, ended up leaving the office on unhappy terms. There is a cultural problem with that office if that is the kind of story that we’re hearing.
“We need to have Philadelphians every day, when they see problems, asking the question, ‘What can the DA do to address this problem?’ he continued. “I hope to be asked that question every day I am district attorney of the city.”